Spotlight Exclusives

The Growing Broadband Divide

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Housed at the Federal Communications Commission is a remarkable but little-used database that shows broadband subscribership almost down to the neighborhood level.The data, reported by service providers, shows subscriber rates in each of the nation۪s 66,000 Census tracts.

The data is woefully underusedit offers a tremendous opportunity for government, nonprofits, and civic leaders to see exactly what parts of their cities and rural areas need help moving into the digital age.

The Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University embarked on a project to see where there were gaps in subscribership in the Washington, D.C. region. We also overlaid some basic demographic information to see what those areas had in common. The project was funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

What we learned was discouraging.

When looking at non-adopters, the most consistent trait was having a low-income. The District۪s poor, mostly African-American neighborhoods were not signing up at the same rate as people who lived in the wealthy suburbs. Additionally, Hispanics were less likely to be broadband subscribers, even when adjusting for income. Not surprisingly, rural residents were also being left behind. Though paying the most for service, they had a lower rate of subscribership than those in urban areas.

In short, we learned that having access to broadband wasn۪t the problemsigning up and paying for it was the problem.

After this discovery, with help from the Ford Foundation, the Workshop expanded the research nationally, and came to the distressing realization that there appears to be a growing broadband divide nationwide.

The Workshop found that subscribership in rural states, particularly in the West, was increasing, sometimes dramatically. Meanwhile, states in the poverty belt, which lies across most of the South, lagged behind the rest of the nation. For example, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, and Tennessee all had abysmal subscription rates, according to the analysis of rates from 2008 through 2010. Hawaii ranked on top and the relatively wealthy Northeast also did very well.

But the big takeaway was that 40 percent of households did not have a broadband connection. That۪s a stunning figure that should have made national news.It didn۪t. Why?

People tend to avoid discussing broadband adoption because it is a much nastier problem to tackle than broadband access. Access is relatively easy to solveit just takes money to run more fiber, or build a high-speed wireless network. In contrast, for low-income areas, one must consider issues of access in addition to poverty, culture, and education.

This isn۪t something that gets talked about much, at least not by government, and certainly not by providers themselves. Cable companies measure their success by how much money they can get from a single household – average revenue per user – not by how many subscribers they sign up.

Further compounding the situation, the Federal Communications Commission, which created the subscribership database, has basically outsourced the adoption problem to the cable companies through a program called “Connect to Compete.” Families with at least one child eligible for free lunch as part of the school lunch program can have two years of broadband Internet service at $9.95 per month.

That۪s not exactly a comprehensive plan.

When I point out the broadband-income relationship, for many people it just makes sense. People without money go without a lot of things.

That may be true, but broadband isn۪t a luxury, it۪s a necessity. Those who are not connected are at an economic and educational disadvantage compared to those who are connected. Broadband is becoming more like a utility.With the gap between the haves and have-nots expanding, it is more important than ever that low-income people have broadband Internet.

The important question is: how do we fix this? Should we provide subsidies, like we do through the Universal Service Fund, a phone tax which helps poor people pay their phone bills? Should cities and nonprofits build their own broadband Internet networks to compete with the local providers in an effort to drive down prices?

The problem with these ideas is that even though they drive down the price, simply providing broadband Internet is not enough. People still may not adopt. Part of this is cultural and educational. It is hard to explain to an elderly couple or an immigrant family who have never subscribed why broadband service is important. You can۪t simply send them an email explaining why they need it.

The truth is, there is no simple fix. But a good first step is getting people to care.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

John Dunbar is the former director of the Media and Broadband Project at American University۪s Investigative Reporting Workshop. He is now the managing editor for politics and finance at The Center for Public Integrity.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight۪s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty.  If you have a question about a commentary, please don۪t hesitate to contact us at

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